The Past in the Present: Towards a Rehabilitation of Tradition
by Louis J. Munoz | Spectrum Books | Ibadan, Nigeria | 2007

Most Africans are caught between two worlds – the age-old life of the village and the global village of modern ideologies and technology. It’s not unusual for educated Africans to jettison contemptuously all the backward notions they learned from their elders. Nigerians of this stripe refuse to speak their “primitive” mother tongue. They chatter away in received pronunciation English and even poke fun at unrefined American accents.

Attitudes are changing rapidly even towards pillars of traditional life. Not long ago, I was surprised by the public outrage at a “sexist” cell phone ad which depicted a first-time father ringing his mother to tell her that “it’s a boy!”. Isn’t a girl good enough nowadays, many people asked. Some Yoruba kids refuse to prostrate themselves while greeting their elders. For older Yorubas, this is the height of insult and lack of manners.

And along with the internet and pop music, Nigeria is importing some destructive habits. Divorce, single-motherhood, and cohabitation are all increasing. The family structure is being globalised, to its detriment. And so are public morals. Corruption is endemic. An Igbo proverb says that ezi afa ka ego, “a good name is worth more than wealth”. But today, if you refuse to stick your hand in the public till, you are an efulefu, a ne’er-do-well, a traditional word with a contemporary twist.

Obviously some traditions are bound to die under the pressure of modern life. To be alive means to grow and change. But how can Africans forge a distinctive response to a globalised world without losing what is most precious about their rich and proud heritage?

I found useful answers in a recent book, The Past in the Present: Towards a Rehabilitation of Tradition, by a Nigerian academic at the University of Ibadan. Louis Munoz distinguishes between tradition and traditionalism, between “the living faith of the dead” and “the dead faith of the living”. The difference between men and animals is not just rationality but tradition; only human beings treasure traditions and pass them on.

It’s a difficult balance. A society that rushes to embrace any new wave will lose its roots. On the other hand, a society that clings to tradition without opening up to the positive aspects of modernity will become fossilised.

What Nigerians need is more familiarity with the brilliance of their own history. Africa did not spring into existence with the colonial intrusion, which, in the grand march of African history, is only a blink of an eye. The great Yoruba kingdoms of Oyo and Ife had impressive achievements which should not be forgotten. The fact that there may not be a written language does not equate to a lack of history. In this sense, contemporary African societies can learn from other countries. England and Japan have somehow managed to preserve many of their ancient traditions without sacrificing their modernity.

Munoz points out that African traditions have such vitality and resilience that they have been preserved in the New World. Generations after their forebears were sold into slavery and landed on an alien continent empty-handed and destitute, Yoruba and Efik traditions are alive in Cuba. The slaves brought along their languages, customs, beliefs and gods. “Even some of the material ‘seats’ of their gods, like the stones used in Cuban santeria (as the Yoruba cults are known there), were said to have been brought from Africa by the slaves, who concealed them in their stomachs by swallowing them,” Munoz observes. The ways of the Ekpe (Leopard) Society, for instance, are substantially the same as the customs of the Calabar in Cross River State in South East Nigeria today. Studies of customs in Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad and other Caribbean Islands have come to similar conclusions.

Throwing traditions overboard is not just a matter of keeping up with the global Joneses. Disdain for tradition and traditional societies is hardwired into the Enlightenment, Munoz argues. The philosophers of the 18th Century rejected the claims of authority and only esteemed the harsh light of autonomous reason. They contemptuously dismissed tradition as sub-rational. But Munoz contends that “traditional knowledge may not be rational knowledge in the sense of ‘knowledge through the conceptual, logical and discursive exercise of reason’ but it is intelligent knowledge, rational in the wider sense of the term; the ‘wisdom without reflection’ of [the British philosopher Edmund] Burke.”

Anyone who takes pride in his grandparents should read this wise and inspiring book, which shows that our obsession with novelty and change is shamefully blinkered. “We have been spellbound by the false principle that the categories of before and after are not only temporal adverbs and chronological criteria but also criteria of validity,” writes Munoz. “This has led scholars to be much too concerned with the mythical future to which societies seem to be tending without an adequate appreciation of the origins from which all societies depart”.

Nwachukwu Egbunike is a book editor in Ibadan, Nigeria.

Nwachukwu Egbunike is a book editor and writer in Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria . He studied Medical Laboratory Science at the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus and currently blogs on Feather's Project,...